A day at Ivanpah

I was as shocked as everybody else when news got out this summer about the number of birds being killed at the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System in the Mojave Desert. All of us at Audubon California were alarmed at reports of “streamers,” birds literally set afire in midair from the intense heat generated by this new solar technology. Earlier this month, I got a chance to visit the facility firsthand at the invitation of the operator, NRG Energy.

The plant is certainly an amazing engineering feat. The mirrors, called heliostats, aim the reflected sunlight into the heat collecting units on the top of the 450-foot towers, creating a glare at the top of the tower almost as bright as the sun. The heat boils water that turns to steam and drives a turbine beneath the tower that produces the energy.

There is visible solar flux like a bright cloud around the collector.  It is this solar flux that is the biggest hazard for birds, like the ones that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported being burned.

News reports out of Ivanpah created quite a sensation. We expressed our concern, and opposed the approval of another project of this technology in the desert until the impacts on birds were fully understand and could be avoided, minimized or mitigated effectively. In the meantime, we oppose any new use of this kind of technology until the facts are in.

At the facility we were joined by the lead environmental manager for the project, an executive from NRG, the operator of the project, and the supervising biological consultant for the project. They let me ask all the questions I wanted to ask, and I had plenty. I didn’t get to meet the 23 biologists that were on-site looking for dead birds. Or the 20 biologists working on desert tortoise.

Then the tour. I saw the tortoise pens where they’ve spent more than $20 million doing relocations and breeding efforts as mitigation for this threatened species. I didn’t get to see the tortoises today, as they were hibernating for the winter in their burrows.

We got to the North tower and drove around it. This was the moment I was waiting for. Others from as far away as Washington D.C. had been to Ivanpah to witness the “streamers” only to find a cloudy day. It was cloudy when I landed in Las Vegas, but now the sun was out full force. We drove by the air cooling units – three big fans that cool the steam that comes out of the boiler and turns it back into water.

I could see “streamers” immediately. They were bursts of white vapor or some material that had been converted to white ash, but fell more like a liquid than ashes. A brief burst and fall, then nothing. And it happened in clusters. You can see them, then a pause, then again.

I grabbed my binoculars. I always have binoculars. I looked as close to the energy collector as possible with my special eye protector glasses. If they were birds, then I thought I would see them. I was only 400 feet away, and I have spotted goldfinches at that distance. Hummingbirds would be a challenge. But I saw nothing. I saw nothing coming into the flux, only the streaming material briefly, like a spontaneous fireworks display, then gone. I could look as long as I liked, and I did.

The lead biologist reported that the searches under the towers found parts of beetles, and butterfly wings, and sometimes birds.

I’m not sure what I was looking at, so for me the “streamers” will remain a mystery. The USGS study report on “streamers” will out in February or March. Coincidentally, the final report of one year of monitoring – picking up carcasses and feathers – will also be finalized at about that time.  I will be waiting.

We drove back to headquarters along the side of the project. Toward the mountains was some of the most beautiful desert habitat I have ever seen and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Creosote, cholla, and other desert vegetation covered almost every foot of the land. Not sparse like I see in Antelope Valley sometimes, but rich and diverse. I spotted an American Kestrel, and we all stopped to watch it.

A living bird brought us back to earth.

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